Monday, June 15, 2020

Do these stars have bad contracts? Cap Court is back in session

Welcome back to Cap Court, where we take some of the NHL’s most questionable long-term deals and ask the seemingly simple question: Is this a bad contract?

As always, we’re looking at this from the teams’ perspective, so “bad” means too much money and/or too many years. Remember, we’re only worried about how the deal looks from this point forward. If it made sense when it was signed but has turned bad now, it’s a bad contract. If it’s going to be terrible in five years but still makes sense today, it might be OK.

Past sessions have seen us rule against players like Carey Price and Jamie Benn. We’ve got five new names on the docket this time, and we’ll start with the one that came up often when I asked for suggestions …

Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals

The details: He signed a five-year extension in January, which kicks in next season and carries a cap hit of $9.2 million (and that he negotiated himself).

The case that it’s a bad contract: You saw the part about the $9.2 million cap hit, right? That’s a pretty big ticket for a guy who’s never been the best forward on his own team and has only cracked 25 goals or 100 points once in his career. Those both came in 2009-10 when he was 22 years old. He is no longer 22 years old.

In fact, Backstrom is 32 and will be 37 when this deal expires. There have been skill guys who maintained something close to a high level of production into their late 30s, but the list is a short one and most of those careers came before the league shifted to being dominated by 20-somethings. Furthermore, Backstrom has shown some decline in production; he hasn’t even been a point-per-game player since 2016-17. These days, he’s basically a 70-point guy in a league where elite forwards are consistently cracking 100 points. That’s not worth $9.2 million now, let alone when he’s got a few more years of mileage on him.

The case that it might be OK: The contract represented a big raise in dollars from his previous $6.7 million hit, but in terms of percentage of the cap, he basically signed the same deal he did back in 2010. Not only did he live up to that contract, but Backstrom seemed underpaid for a lot of it. He’s evolved as a player since then, and while he may have lost a fraction of a step, he’s a smarter two-way player.

Sure, maybe the cap hit is a bit high. But the Capitals probably faced a choice between that or offering more years to keep the hit lower. That would have been a mistake and Brian MacLellan deserves some credit for avoiding that route, even knowing he’d probably be leaving a mess for someone else to clean up. And the cap hit isn’t that bad for a No. 1 center; it’s only the eighth highest for a pivot next year.

Besides, what’s the worst-case scenario here? A beloved star who was underpaid for years and played a key role in the team finally winning a Stanley Cup makes a little bit too much in his final seasons before retiring as a lifetime Capital? I feel like Washington fans can live with that.

Key witnesses: Of those centers with higher cap hits, two are around Backstrom’s age (Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar) and one is a year older (Evgeni Malkin). Of course, Sidney Crosby makes less, but Crosby’s contract is a bad comparable for pretty much everyone.

The verdict: Watch me thread a needle here. This contract is going to be bad — there’s a very good chance that in those last few years, with Alexander Ovechkin either retired or in decline, the Caps are going to be trying to rebuild or reload and wishing they hadn’t overpaid for the past. If we check back two years from now, we probably get a guilty verdict. But it’s not two years from now, and the Caps are still Cup contenders. Signing a deal you know will end badly is a mistake for most teams, but for an aging contender with a championship core and a closing window, it can make sense. There’s no time like the present and flags fly forever, so this isn’t a bad deal … yet.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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